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5 Popular Myths about Long Distance Bicycle Touring

trueorfalseRecently Chris from Vermont e-mailed us about our bicycle tour.  Before signing off he wrote, “I would love to do what you’re doing, but at my age it’s just not possible.”

This type of email is typical.  People writing to say they would like to set off on a bicycle tour but can’t for any number of reasons.

Now, I don’t know Chris from Vermont’s age.  Perhaps he’s pushing 90.  Maybe he really is too old for a long-distance bicycle tour.  But more likely than not, he just thinks he’s too old.  He’s bought into a myth about bicycle touring.

There are all sorts of myths about bicycle touring flying around.  Here are a few of my favorites:

French retirees Andre and Danielle take on South America.Myth 1: Long distance adventure Bicycle Touring is only for the young. Sure we all know granny and gramps can trundle around Europe on bicycles.  Pedal 40 kilometers, plop down at a café for a leisurely lunch and then check into a comfy B&B for the night.

But retirees bicycle touring in 3rd world countries?  Camping in the wild?  Cranking out 100+ kilometers per day.  Not possible most would say.

Wrong.  Danielle and André, a French couple well into their 60s, passed us up as we were fighting headwinds on our way to Ushuaia.  They camp.  They ride through developing countries like Peru and Bolivia.  And they collect social security.  Who says adventure bicycle touring is just for the young?

 

Myth 2:  You must be super-fit to set off on a bicycle tour.   Nothing could be further from the truth.  If you’ve got two functioning lungs, you can go on a bicycle tour.  The beauty of bicycle touring is that you can start out slow and build up gradually. There’s no need to be able to crank out 100 kilometers on your first day.  In fact, many bicycle tourists are comfortable puttering along at around 60 kilometers per day.

 

Olivia and Bhinti from Crazyonbikes.com on what they call a 'turtle tour' around the world.  Cycling slowly and loving it.

Olivia and Bhinti from Crazyonbikes.com on what they call a 'turtle tour' around the world. Cycling slowly and loving it.

Myth 3:  Bicycle Touring requires a major investment in gear.  Nah.  That’s just not true.  Way back in 2004 when Eric and I set off on our very first bicycle tour, we looked more like a couple of homeless people on bikes than serious cyclists.

I was riding an old Schwinn we’d picked up at a garage sale, Eric had a mountain bike he’d bought back in the 80’s, and instead of sleek-looking Ortlieb panniers, we’d strapped a backpack on the rack.

cool-bicycle

We were a sight.  But it didn’t matter.  We made it 767 kilometers through Alsace and had the best vacation ever.

It’s easy to fall prey to all the marketing hype around high-tech gear.  Sure, I love my sturdy, long-suffering Koga Miyata.  When it rains, I’m thankful for waterproof bicycle bags.

But could I bicycle tour around the world without all the great gear?  You bet.

Myth 4:  A major long-distance bicycle tour is expensive. Unless you’re keen on walking, Bicycle Touring is the absolute cheapest way to travel.  Since we set off in June 2006, our total expenditure has been around $55,000.  Total expenditure.  Gear, bicycles, airline tickets, insurance, healthcare costs, food, clothing, accommodation, electronics, EVERYTHING.

$55,000  for two people in four and a half years is really not a lot of money.   That’s less than the average US family income for one year.  And we were travelling.

When you break it down, that’s $500 per month per person.  Probably what some of you fork over each month in car payments.

Admittedly, we are rather frugal.  There are times when I could do with a little more comfort.  But the point is, if you don’t mind camping and couchsurfing, self-catering and keeping an eye on your budget, a long-distance bicycle tour is probably within reach for you.**

Myth 5:  You must be ‘tough’ to set off on a bicycle tour. We cyclists like to write a lot about how much we suffer on bicycle tours.  We whine about headwinds and climate extremes.  We go on and on about steep mountain passes and bone-jarring backroads.    We spin tales about cycling through the desert lugging around a week’s water supply.

While there is some truth to all this talk of suffering, a lot is pure hyperbole (the winds in Patagonia excepted).

Bicycle touring can be as comfortable as you want to make it.  If you’ve got a generous budget, there are plenty of companies that will organize a tour for you and even arrange for your luggage to be transferred from one destination to the next (check out Biciklo for lots of listings).

Southeast Asia is a popular bicycle touring destination because distances are short, food is delicious and towns with comfortable guest houses are so close together that carrying a tent is optional.

Finally, if you’re not too proud to hop on a truck, suffering is almost always optional, no matter in what part of the world you choose to cycle.

 

Sometimes it's best just to swallow your pride and hop on a truck.

Sometimes it's best just to swallow your pride and hop on a truck.

What’s your opinion?  Do you agree/disagree with these popular bicycle touring myths?  Maybe you’ve got your own myth to add.

**disclaimer  “You” refers to the average reader of this blog–an English-speaking individual living in the US or Western Europe.  Obviously, for those living in the developing world even $500 is a huge sum of money.

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35 Responses to 5 Popular Myths about Long Distance Bicycle Touring

  1. Shakylegs
    Shakylegs June 1, 2013 at 5:03 pm #

    I like this article. It dispels the myths of long distance cycling: Young, Fit, and Expensive,

    Young: I am 77 now and planning a medium length trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles via Route-1 which will take me down the coast and through Big Sur. Previously, while in my earlier 70′s, I did a two month trip through the Swiss and Austrian Alps, then biked the Dalmatian Islands off the coast of Croatia. Possibly the best European trip was a 9-week tour in Southern France.

    Fit: Fitness does not mean hammering your body into shape. My fitness right now is only so-so, so I plan to do only 15 miles or so each day the first few days, and gradually increase the mileage as I go – if I feel the need to.

    Expense: You do not need an expensive bike and equipment. For this coming trip I plan to fly to San Francisco, and buy a bike at Walmart for about $150 to $250. On my Alps trip I took an aging bike originally bought from Costco, and on the France trip a cheap $87 bike. I gave both bikes away to avoid the cost of shipping them home.

    I will add another item: I usually travel solo, and my daily costs of camping and food usually run less than $50 a day. Compare that to a guided tour that can cost you from $100 to $200 a day.

    • Shakylegs
      Shakylegs July 14, 2013 at 4:01 pm #

      I have finished the California coast bike trip. Some comments:

      * I bought a very nice bike at a Walmart near SFO for $95.
      * I was out of condition, so I only did about 20 miles or so the first few days.
      * Narrow road shoulders were the main danger.
      * The cost of the Hike & Bike campsites at the State Parks is only $5 a night.
      * The route was tougher than expected, but the weather was perfect – sunny and cool.
      * I decided to cut the trip short at San Luis Obispo to avoid Route 101.

      A good trip. Now where should I bike next? Hmm.

    • Shakylegs
      Shakylegs September 18, 2014 at 6:57 am #

      I have just come back from another long distance bike trip of two months duration. This time to Scotland. For those of you who are interested, I have a short description of it on my Facebook page with some photo’s:

      Click below

      https://www.facebook.com/notes/maurice-robson/biking-scotland-2014/10150416224694944

  2. lee
    lee June 25, 2013 at 2:46 am #

    I have a few questions regarding budget, alot of you are saying you average $10 per day etc but what about doing tours and seeing sites when in a certain area ? I am hoping to set off on an around the world journey in the next 2 years but i dont want to miss out on something because of budget. I’ll give you an example on trip to Canada I was in Banff and wanted to experience dog sledding for a half day this cost $350 and the experience was worth every penny. All the blogs and websites seem to be focused on minimal budgets or maximum time. I would like to travel for 2 years and was thinking that $500 per week ($52k budget) would be what I would need to be looking at in order to fully enjoy and experience this wonderful planet. Do you think $500 would be enough for what I am after ? I will camp and cook my own food as much as possible Also this would have to include 3-4 flights and visa’s

  3. Shakylegs
    Shakylegs August 7, 2013 at 1:52 am #

    I was a little disappointed in Jake’s three comments. He has clearly done some serious long distance bike touring – maybe he is burned out.

    Here are some of the issues he raised:

    “. . weeks and months staring at the pavement”
    Change your approach to biking; try biking just 25 miles a day instead of ripping off a 100 miles. That means you can arrive at the next camp site well before noon and relax throughout the PM.

    “. . can’t do any hiking”
    Sure you can hike; after a day or two in the saddle, ask the next campground ranger to keep your bike in a storage shed, and take to the hills on an extended hike. Even Mt. Whitney can be climbed in one day.

    “. . cost of food . . much higher than fuel”
    Hold everything; do you mean when you travel by car or public transport that you do not eat – at all?

    “. . public transport . . saving loads of time”
    Saving lots of time is not the issue; the fastest way to go completely around the world would be by commercial airlines – and see nothing but airports!

    “. . the efficiency of a bicycle”
    Sure it’s efficient; it is one of the most efficient modes of transportation known to man. The Viet Nam war was won by thousands of coolies on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, pushing bikes, each loaded with hundreds of pounds of supplies. You say you want to hike? There is no mechanical efficiency in hiking; you support your body and the backpack entirely on your legs.

  4. Vuk Peric
    Vuk Peric May 31, 2014 at 2:12 pm #

    Shakylegs love you man
    I just learnd how to ride a bike last year in feb. I already done a tour throu Serbia and montenegro of some 1700km and in this year and 4months Iw done some 10 000km riding my bike to work every day. In a few months I plan to start my trip from Belgrade Serbia to London UK.
    Stealth and cheap being the key words in my plan

  5. William
    William July 3, 2014 at 3:58 pm #

    I am just getting into Cycle Touring – still working on getting my wife to believe it is the best means of going on holiday.

    I think anyone being negative about cycle touring does not understand that it is all about being at peace. If you are too tired to hike when you reach your destination, well sleep a night and go hiking the next day.

    For our 20th anniversary we did our first trip. Daily travel ranaged from 15km (8miles) to 40km (25 miles). Most days included at least a 5 km hike, and some days up to 15km hike. (Alps in Austria).

    We have now bought a tandem and plan to tour many areas of South Africa over the next few years worth of holidays.

  6. Georges Dodds
    Georges Dodds August 10, 2014 at 6:51 am #

    Just finished a 2 week 1800 km (1100 miles) tour around Lake Ontario (the long way, Montreal >Albany > Buffalo > Fort Erie > Niagara-on-the-Lake > Toronto > Montreal).
    * I’ll be 55 in 2 weeks, and have well controlled Type II Diabetes
    * I did no formal training (though I have done a number of 6-45 day trips over the last 35 years), but kept up an average of just under 120 km/day, with little variation [except the one day when 125 mm (~5 in.) of rain fell in 5 hrs]
    * Besides one forced overnight stay in a hotel (Albany, $150 eeks!!!) due to severe thunderstorms, with local reports of hail, 2 nights staying with/visiting relatives (free), the other 12 nights were scot free (guerrilla camping).
    * Rode a late 1970s vintage Peugeot 10-speed (cost $100, 7 years ago), replaced 1 tire (27 x 1½) ($22), have had the same rear paniers (Bellweather) since 1979, and while they’ve lost their waterproofing, they’re structurally fine — I just wrap things in Ziploc (plastic) bags to keep them dry.
    * The only big splurge was ~$120 for a Brooks saddle (leather seat) a few years ago — when some @@#%!!! deserving a long lingering and excruciatingly painful death stole my 25+ year old Brooks saddle. I could go on endlessly about how comfortable the Brooks saddle is for long distance biking — needs a bit of upkeep, covering with a plastic grocery bag on rainy occasions, but fantastic comfort!!
    * Food and drink costs for trip $50/day (I like to indulge in a pint or two of Guinness, and a good meal on occasion)

    As for pacing, I always make sure I have plenty of extra time, so I’m not pressing to finish by a deadline — best stress reducer I know.

  7. Sammy
    Sammy September 4, 2014 at 5:30 am #

    We did a 1.5 year tandem tour in 93-94 in Europe and Africa. I loved it, she on the other hand tolerated it. I woke up every morning (well almost every morning) with the thought if only I could get paid to do this.

    We lived on about $5 day in Africa, camping, cooking and usually 1-2 meals at a restaurant (simple ones, you know really simple) and alot of skumi wika (steamed greens, we loved them being vegeterian). In Europe we tended to spend around 10-15 with camping and not counting extras.

    It was really great to be able to camp in Paris at the Bois de Boulougne, what a crazy campground but fun. The French were great but food was really hard, being a vegeterian, loved the salad from the markets. And one time went to a Chinese Restaurant and even there the portions were French meaning small. Best places to eat in Paris were the Moroccan places. They know how to eat. Almost as good as Morocco but nothing was like Marakech Market at night, so cool.

    While my wife at the time said one morning ‘Sam this is harder than work’. It was a different experience for both of us.

    But I found Africa more desireable for cycling than Europe. I didn’t mind Europe and we had some nice experiences there but I preferred Africa on many levels, never felt threatened except in parts of the cities, Nairobbery and Harare.
    Countryside was very tranquil and people so hospitable and generous.

    We would look for the nicest house or abode and just knock on the gate to see if we could camp in their yard, we were never refused. Sometimes even invited to stay with the Humans inside. I actually preferred sleeping outside in the tent looking at the stars, we had netting in our tent.

    The Tandem was good because no matter how fast I cycled she was always right behind me, good for her not always for me. I am going to start travelling again, now in my 50′s. It’s all about pacing yourself. At one point I was really burned out and just stayed at a nice campground in Malawi for a week, what a nice break and Malawi was wonderful.

    We definitely had good gear, my wife like buying nice things in every sense and I went along with it. I agreed for the bike because I wanted to limit equipment problems, we had the thickest thermarests in those days 2.5″ because getting a good nice sleep was important and we had a comfortable, durable tent, Moss (now MSR). I don’t think you have to buy the most expensive, I had the multifuel MSR but now prefer the simplier methane handbuilt stoves. Weight is always an issue. We carried too many spare parts.

    Beckman bags too low on the front of the Tandem but Huge (with Gordon racks, now Bruce Gordon wow he is a real jerkoff, probably was a surgeon in his previous life) like megalithic, and we had the zip off backpacks that we occasional used but sounded like a good idea. Bob was horrible on his time frame but we fortunately had enough lead time that we got them before we left, he was only 6 months behind schedule. But he is a really nice guy, makes a beautiful product and is definitely a horrible project manager, but I never regret getting his bags, they were beautiful and I would definitely do business with him again.

    Thanks for your inspiration and stories, I’m going to set a goal to be on the road in a year.

    Sorry this got so long but such good memories.

    Cheers,

    Sam

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